Was death good for Fidel himself? That depends on whether he repented of his massive brutality, which denied the Cuban people their basic human rights and impoverished them for generations. Fidel never repented publicly of the gangster state that he and his brother ran, operating Cuba like a giant mafia operation. If Fidel did not repent privately of his public crimes, his death was a good day for Cuba but a bad day for him.
Did God offer Fidel the grace of conversion? Yes. We know that because the saint of our times, Pope John Paul II, asked specifically and insistently for that grace for Fidel. Whether he accepted it remains known to God alone.
“Castro was fascinated by John Paul II,” recalls Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the longtime papal spokesman who met with Castro in 1997 to organize John Paul’s visit to Cuba. “He wanted to know everything there was to know about him, who his family was, what his life had been like. He wanted to know more about Wojtyla as a man and gave away his admiration for him. I sensed he wanted to delve deeper.
“I said to him: ‘Mr. President, I envy you. Why? Because the Pope prays for you every day, he prays that a man of your education may find the way of the Lord again.’ For once, the Cuban president was silent.”
As a student Fidel had a good Jesuit education. He knew the faith before he began persecuting the Church. John Paul prayed that Fidel might discover again the faith of his upbringing.
There were great hopes that the 1998 papal visit might plant seeds that would end Castro’s rule, then in its fifth decade. After all, the 1987 papal visit to Chile seemed to provide added impetus for reform, and the following year Augusto Pinochet permitted a plebiscite on his continued rule, which he lost. He relinquished power soon thereafter. Would the same happen in Havana?
No. Yet the days of John Paul’s visit forced Fidel to listen to voices that he often did not hear. At home, he suppressed them. And abroad, Fidel more often heard the fawning praise of those like Justin Trudeau, who were quite content to sacrifice the liberty and prosperity of ordinary Cubans for the thrill of associating themselves with revolutionary anti-Americanism.
Fidel understood that hosting John Paul, the world’s leading champion of freedom, was something of a different order than receiving, for example, a communist-embracing Pierre Trudeau 20-some years earlier. He ditched his military fatigues, wearing a suit instead, and attended the papal Masses, which were little islands of freedom in the ocean of fear and repression that was Cuba.
“On various occasions I have spoken on social themes,” John Paul said, acknowledging that he had been clearly critical of the Castro regime at every stop. “It is necessary to keep speaking on these themes, as long as any injustice, however small, is present in the world. Otherwise the Church would not be faithful to the mission entrusted to her by Christ. At stake here is man, the concrete human person.
“While times and situations may change, there are always people who need the voice of the Church so that their difficulties, their suffering and their distress may be known. Those who find themselves in these situations can be certain that they will not be betrayed, for the Church is with them and the Pope, in his heart and with his words of encouragement, embraces all who suffer injustice.”
The enormous congregation in Havana’s José Martí plaza erupted in a thunderous ovation, chanting “Libertad! Libertad!” Never before had the jailers of the Cuban prison state had to hear such things, let alone in person.
“For Christians, the freedom of the children of God is not only a gift and a task, but its attainment also involves an invaluable witness and a genuine contribution to the journey towards the liberation of the whole human race,” John Paul continued. “This liberation cannot be reduced to its social and political aspects, but rather reaches its fullness in the exercise of freedom of conscience, the basis and foundation of all other human rights.”
At this point the crowds erupted again, beginning a rhythmic chant: “The Pope is free and wants us all to be free!” It was an electric moment on a purely natural level, a Spirit-filled moment evident to the eyes of faith.
John Paul replied: “Yes, (the Pope) lives with that freedom for which Christ has set you free!”
Libertad! Libertad! Freedom did not come to Cuba in 1998, and still has not arrived. The papal visit of 1998 though provided a momentary respite from the repression. As a goodwill gesture, Fidel allowed Christmas to be celebrated in 1997. That has continued to the present day. Otherwise the denial of human rights has continued, also to the present day.
Freedom will come for Cuba one day. The death of Fidel is a bit like the beginning of Advent, the final period of preparation for the good news still to come at Christmas.
(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine: www.conviviummagazine.ca.)